An automobile’s braking system is one of the most complicated as it involves several components working together. It is also one the most important systems when it comes to safety. But how exactly does the brake system work? When you press on the brake pedal, you are actually pushing against a plunger in the master cylinder, which forces brake fluid to the wheels’ braking unit through a series of hoses. In disc brakes – most vehicles have four-wheel disc brakes today – the fluid is forced into a caliper pressing against a piston, which then squeezes the brake pads against the disc generating friction causing your car to slow down and finally stop.
As you can imagine, brake pads will be the first component to wear down. If you hear an unusual noise when braking, such as squealing, grinding or screeching, it is time to replace your pads. Brake repair is typically inexpensive when it’s timely addressed. But, if you allow your brake pads and rotors to wear down, then you will likely face a much more expensive brake repair job.
Other common signals indicating that your brakes need to be serviced or repaired include:
- Atypical foot pedal pressure: your brake pedal is either too hard or soft to press down.
- Pump the brakes: you need to repeatedly push down and release the brake pedal in order to stop.
- Overheating: one or more of your wheels are excessively hot even after a short drive.
- Pulsate: your car pulsates to a stop when you are trying to brake.
- Light: if your brake warning light comes on, don’t wait to bring in your vehicle to get checked out.
The type of vehicle, type of use and your driving style all have an influence on the life expectancy of your brakes. If you strictly drive in San Francisco, your brake pads will need to be replaced anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 miles. If you mostly drive on the highway, then your pads will have a lifetime of 20,000 to 50,000 miles.
On the other hand, rotors are usually good for two brake jobs and generally need to be replaced at the third brake repair. However, in European cars, e.g. BMW, Mercedes and Volkswagen, the front wheels’ rotors should be replaced at every brake job as the clumping pressure on this type of brakes wears down the discs significantly. Finally, the calipers and master cylinder usually have a lifespan of about 100 -150 thousand miles.
Remember, it’s significantly cheaper to address a single issue than to repair or replace multiple components of your brake system. So, make sure to schedule your free brake inspection every 5,000 miles or twice a year if you’re a city driver, and once or twice a year if you drive mostly on the highway.